Forced to choose between Ali Smith’s The Accidental and Ian McEwan’s Saturday for the 2nd annual Morning News Tournament of Books, Dale Peck would prefer not to. “I thought I was ready to read contemporary fiction,” Peck says. “I was wrong…The truth is, contemporary fiction’s nothing more than an enabler of certain bourgeois illusions. At least McEwan seems to understand this; Smith doesn’t even pretend to a dialectic.” But he’s not portioning out all the blame to the authors, no sir: “Writers wouldn’t be producing this twaddle if you weren’t reading it.” (And, to be honest, I believe he’s got a point; I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why you all—obviously I’m speaking metaphorically here—were making such a fuss about Saturday, and your hoopla probably will result in more of the same…The question of whether Peck would enjoy contemporary science fiction any better is left as an exercise to the reader, albeit one I’d really like to watch.)
Well, if nobody wins, a tournament tends to stop dead in its tracks, so over Peck’s protests the Morning News flipped a coin and moved The Accidental into the next round. Then organizers Kevin Guilfoile and John Warner have their say. Guilfoile’s indirect response is particularly amusing:
“Fifteen or so years ago, while volunteering for my college’s literary festival, I had the pleasure of escorting Ken Kesey around campus for a couple days… He said that if you’re fortunate enough to make your living as a novelist you will almost certainly be approached one day by an individual—perhaps even a powerful or influential one—who will suggest you use your talent as a tool of some political, religious, or commercial agenda. It is the obligation of a writer, Kesey said, to look that person in the eyes and say, Fuck you.”
Oddly enough, I was on the organizing committee for that festival, and though I can’t remember whether I was there at that precise moment (although you’d think I’d remember Ken Kesey screaming fuck you if I’d witnessed it), I learned my own valuable lesson from Kesey when we shook hands backstage before his reading and he held on to my hand firmly and told me, “Always give a firm handshake. It’s not about macho bullshit, it’s about respect.” Then we did it again until he was satisfied.